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Vandals wreck drug lord's Galician historical home to prevent its sale

The 18th-century house will be up for auction for the third time

An 18th-century Galician country house once owned by a drug clan and systematically vandalized over the last decade and a half, may be put up on the auction block next week - for the third time.

The home, Vista Real, which is situated in the middle of 3.7 hectares of rolling parkland near Vigo, is just one of more than 50 properties bought by the Charlín family in the late 1980s when its members were major players in the northwest region's drug trade.

After the clan was broken up by the police, and its patriarch, Manuel Charlín, was jailed in 1995, the state seized Vista Real and other properties with the intention of selling them to pay the estimated 30 million euros in fines levied on the Charlín family for money laundering and non-payment of taxes. Since then, the Charlín clan has been accused of systematically looting and vandalizing Vista Real, along with other country houses they once owned that are of architectural and historical interest, in a bid to prevent them from being sold at auction.

But on December 9, Vista Real will once again be put up for sale. During the last auction, on October 5, the property was appraised at 2 million euros, but there were no takers. The local town hall has since said that it intends to purchase Vista Real and has already passed a law declaring the land around the estate as public property - a move designed to dissuade other bidders.

In July, the police arrested 11 alleged members of the Charlín family. Manuel Charlín, now 78, and who was due for release, was arrested while in jail on new charges. Three of his children were also arrested. Manuel Charlín is accused of continuing to run his operations from jail, mostly money-laundering transactions.

As part of a three-year investigation, the police tapped telephone conversations between Charlín and his family, which they say demonstrate that he "remains the intellectual leader" of the clan's financial affairs. The family has invested in the fish and seafood canning industry, which has been hard hit in Galicia. It is also accused of running brothels, night clubs and even gas stations.

"It seems obvious that the Charlín family continues to launder money," say police sources, pointing out that it has seized properties the clan has bought since 1995, when a major operation closed down its activities. In the resulting trial of several members of the Charlín family, not all their goods and properties were confiscated.

Five months after the operation that saw Charlín re-arrested - he is out on bail - and also the arrest of his wife, four of his children, two grandchildren, and three others, the police continue to search for the money the Charlín family used to buy property. It has discovered 3 million euros in an account in Switzerland.

The overwhelming majority of cocaine entering Europe comes by sea, says the Galician customs authority. Only a small fraction of the total supply is smuggled through airports. And up to now, most of it has come through Galicia. Thanks to its geography and its seafaring, smuggling tradition, the region provides ideal conditions for drug trafficking, they say. According to the EU, 60 percent of cocaine smuggled into Europe comes through Spain.

The rugged Atlantic coastline of the Galicia region has long been a paradise for smugglers and, over the past two decades, for cocaine traffickers. The trade has been building up since the 1980s, buoyed by the Colombian traffickers' need to look for an alternative to the heavily controlled North American market, and attracted by European-wide demand for the drug, particularly in Eastern Europe.

Things have changed since local tobacco smugglers - who were revered as Robin Hood figures - turned to more profitable cocaine in the 1980s.

Police action against the traditional smuggling families has left a void that is being filled by young, hot-blooded traffickers. Dozens have been killed in turf wars over the last decade.

The killings have yet to reach beyond those involved in the illicit trade. Fear of the hitmen, however, stops some local people from cooperating with police and keeps others from raising their voices in protest against the new traffickers.